This is a wide and often very busy alley just off Leicester Square that is now surrounded by theatres and a famous oyster bar.
The area developed in the early 1600s when Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury was granted 5 acres of land in the area for building. It was initially lined with large houses with back gardens that faced onto St Martins Lane and Charing Cross Street (at the time Castle Street), so much more of a residential district than it is today.
St Martin’s Court appeared in the 1680s, mainly as a way of cramming in more smaller buildings into the same space, and although the buildings are long since gone, the layout has remained the same ever since.
The area was largely unchanged until the arrival of the theatres at the turn of the 19th century, with both the Wyndham’s Theatre and the New Theatre sweeping away the small shops.
Both theatres were built by the actor/manager, Charles Wyndham who had long desired to manage his own theatre. It took a lot of fundraising to secure the dream though.
The first, the Wyndham’s Theatre opened in November 1899 with a revival of David Garrick by T W Robertson in which the theatre’s owner Charles Wyndham and his future wife, Mary Moore, both appeared. The theatre was designed by the architect W G R Sprague in the Louis XVI style.
To build Wyndham’s, he had been obliged to buy a larger parcel of land than he required, and in 1901 he was in negotiations to sell the area he did not need. When negotiations fell through, he decided to build another theatre on the vacant site.
That theatre, also designed by W G R Sprague opened in March 1903 as the New Theatre. The internal decoration was based on French designs from the 18th century, and the auditorium was constructed on the cantilever principle, rendering columns unnecessary and ensuring unimpeded views.
The New Theatre was renamed Albery in 1973, after Mary Moore’s son, Sir Bronson Albery, and renamed again in 2006 as the Noël Coward Theatre.
Both theatres are now owned by Cameron Mackintosh.
The alley that snakes around between the backs of both theatres presents a very back-of-stage appearance, with grand frontages that swiftly reduce down to basic and shabby backs.
As the two theatres share a single owner, it’s not a huge surprise to see a covered footbridge between the two letting staff slip between the two theatres as needed.
Large ground floor delivery loading bay doors also dominate the space, along with posters advertising the various Mackintosh shows you can go and see if so minded.
The alley’s other famous resident is J. Sheekey, a restaurant, which reputedly was set up in 1896 when the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, gave a local stallholder by the name of Josef Sheekey permission to serve fish and shellfish in St Martin’s Court on the proviso that he caters for Salisbury’s post-theatre supper parties.
As Lord Salisbury (aka, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) owned the land that does seem plausible. They seemed to have moved to St Martin’s Court later though, as there’s a record of them working at an Oyster bar in Holborn in January 1898.
Thus a restaurant was born, and it has slowly expanded over the past 125 years taking over more of the remaining small shops until it fills most of the remaining space.
The Cecil family still owns the land the restaurant is on.
On the corner is another Salisbury reference, this time to a pub, The Salisbury, which was built in 1899 to replace an older pub on the same site. Originally known as the Salisbury Stores, the interior is famously richly decorated in a High Victorian fashion, which makes it very popular with tourists.
Being a theatre land pub, it was known to be quite gay-friendly up to around the mid-1980s, and was featured in the 1961 film, Victim, which was noted for being the first English language film to use the term “homosexual”. It was also however the location where in 1979 the serial killer Dennis Nilsen nearly succeeded in luring a victim back to his house. As charges weren’t pressed, Nilsen was able to go on to murder maybe around a dozen more men.